Steve Roden - Berlin Fields [3Leaves - 2012]
Veteran deep listening sound artist Steve Roden released multiple recordings in 2012, one of which was "Berlin Fields", a single 40 minute piece largely composed of field recordings.
Many albums of the field recording genre simply pay omage to the underrecognized beauty of nature, whether remote or right under our noses. Most of the these recordings attempt to capture the natural environment as it is, without imposing any kind of human stamp on it. With "Berlin Fields", however, Roden's statement is more personal and complex.
Rather than focus on a single environment, Roden provides snapshots of a plethora of environments, and doesn't exclude sounds of man-made or mechanized nature. His choices reflect the at times dreary tone of a routine, domestic existence. From the beginning of the record, it's as if the listener is literally placed into Roden's life: a soft, quavering tone from a wind instrument patient sounds atop a bed of background noise in which one discern police sirens, people talking, the general bustle of the street.
Half-heard fragments of conversation become a theme as Roden contributes recordings of several densely populated public locations. Rustlings, hissings and slidings become eerie in this disembodied form, as the listener is unable to see the actions that corresponded to the sounds. Roden soon gives the piece completely over to these sounds, as all human voices disappear for the mix for many minutes. Particularly notable is the firm, insistent sound of a ventilation system paired to the singing of birds high in the trees; the sound of their altitude is pleasant.
The next notable development is a segment of sluggish metallic percussion that sounds like Roden is drumming on metal pipes. It is possible he sequenced the rhythm out of samples he recorded, but actually it sounds more organic than that. This passage has a heady, ritualistic air which compliments the continued feeling of being outdoors. Wisely, Roden extends this section for upwards of 8 minutes, letting the listener become fully engaged in the rhythm.
The following stanza is mostly hushed, like a basement. I hear dusty, wooden rattlings and scratching sounds like determined tunneling through dirt. At one point a muffled airplane passes overhead. After this, we are treated to a soothing lullaby, sung by a woman over a crackling radio, which serves to combat the relentless chug of subway trains in the backdrop. At this point we are roughly halfway through the running time of the album.
The third quarter of the piece is its quietest quadrant. The lack of sound in the foreground causes the listener to fixate on the faintest whisp of distant music (likely the drum beat of a pop song playing on someone's radio), or the imperfect yet pleasing rumble of a car's engine. The sounds of traffic and the noisy rattling of beans inside a cup or bowl do most to fill the space over the next few minutes.
As the album nears its end, the grimy din of the city has grown close, and it seems we're jogging down the sidewalk, judging by the rubbery slaps of shoes on the pavement. Several hallucinatory flashes follow, featuring water, birds, metallic groans, skronks and taps, glimmering bells and unidentified machines. In the last minute, it is as if we are submerged, and this causes the sonic activity to cease.
What a fascinating journey in sound, what a wonderful concise presentation of so much vital information. I love this album, and highly recommend it to anyone open to field recordings. Josh Landry